What is it like to spend your working life in the oil and gas industry? What are the challenges and sacrifices? As well, what are the benefits and who should think about this industry for their career?
In this article Jeyhun Najafli, CEO at Advanced Upstream Ltd., shares his experience of managing engineers in the field and memories of a life in oil and gas. After such a varied life and career, he may write a book when he retires, with all the interesting stories from his years in the oil and gas industry.
A life in oil and gas – Jeyhun Najafli, CEO at Advanced Upstream Ltd.
Why did you choose chemical engineering and continue studying to complete a PhD?
I was interested in science and so chemical engineering was a good choice for me. I studied at Azerbaijan State Oil Academy, which is the oldest oil and gas university in the world. So, a lot of the people there were going to have careers in oil and gas. This wasn’t my intention at all as I had seen the sort of lifestyle people had doing oil and gas jobs.
Why did you join the oil and gas industry?
As I mentioned, it was not my intention or plan. I was going to stay at university and was offered a job there. However, then a friend from Ethiopia told me about a job which was rotational – 2 weeks on and 2 weeks off. He had been doing this while he completed his PhD and so, he thought I could do it too. Things were tough economically at that time in Azerbaijan and I didn’t want to be a burden to my parents. So, it seemed attractive because of the salary. There was of course the bonus of having the opportunity to travel and so I accepted a job with Baroid (now part of Halliburton.)
Career with Schlumberger and progressing to managing engineers in the field
Your first role was working within Schlumberger for Coiled Tubing Services. Where were you based?
In fact, I applied for forty jobs in Baku and was offered one from Schlumberger.
I couldn’t start immediately as it took a year to process all the paperwork and to get a visa etc. Initially I was going to be in Italy but by the time the visa came though, that had changed and in fact I went to Nigeria. It was quite a difference in destination, but I was still keen.
Just before I left, there was a report that a plane on the tarmac of the airport in Nigeria had had all its luggage stolen. I wondered what it would be like when I arrived.
The first time I arrived, there were thousands of people around the airport, and I had a security detail to take me to where I would be living and working. It was a very interesting first overseas assignment!
The rotational aspect didn’t happen, and I worked for the first year without any breaks.
How did you progress within Schlumberger?
To start with I didn’t feel I had as much experience as other international people. So, because I was keen to succeed and progress well, I worked during the day and studied at night.
After a year, I was confident in the country and moved around without my security detail.
I would have been happy to stay in Nigeria working but Schlumberger had other ideas for me, and I stayed with them for over 14 years in different positions.
Moving internationally and managing engineers in the field
You have lived and worked in Nigeria, Russia, the USA, the UK, and Canada. What has the experience of living in so many countries given to you?
Being in the oil and gas industry has given me the opportunity to travel. I like new cultures and enjoy learning about the people from each place – the food, the language, the ways of doing things.
It has made me realise that there are good people and good engineers everywhere.
How have you adapted successfully each time?
I grew up in an international environment in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. Baku has always had a variety of people from different cultures and so I grew up in a multi-cultural environment. Because of that, I was used to people from different places being friendly and learning from them.
Language and culture
How much has language been an issue?
When I was at school Azerbaijan was part of the USSR and so I didn’t have access to films or radio in English. Therefore, I learnt English from books and tried to imagine what the pronunciation would sound like. So, my understanding of written English has always been good, but my pronunciation has had to catch up, and my accent has remained. It was also a challenge to understand when people spoke. In my first experience overseas I had Scottish, Texan and Nigerian accents all speaking their own types of English. It was a challenge but helped me to become a better communicator.
Do you think your Azerbaijani nationality has helped or hindered you in your career?
I think my multi-cultural background has helped me in the oil and gas industry. I was promoted fast within Schlumberger; first in Russia because I spoke the language but then in Canada.
The culture of Azerbaijan has always produced traders and negotiators; probably because of where we are geographically. There is a very famous story of a leader, Shirvanshah Ibrahim I, who prevented an invasion by collecting gold to take to the invader Timur (Tamerlane). He gave them the gold as a present, made friends and kept things peaceful. It was the wise thing to do as he couldn’t have stopped the invasion anyway. From then on negotiation was a key part of Azerbaijani culture.
In one of my roles as a Marketing Manager in Russia just before I started, my assistant, who didn’t have English as a first language, had a sign made for the door which said, “Market Manager”. It wasn’t strictly accurate but caused a lot of laughter from my Schlumberger colleagues since Azerbaijani traders ran many farmers’ markets in Russia.
Can innovation be learnt or is it an attribute?
I think innovation comes from a combination of hard work and skill.
What do you think is the key to innovation?
The key to innovation is hard work. If you work hard, you gain more experience and in doing this you start to think about how things could be done differently. Working in the field is also good practice for an innovative mindset as sometimes it is necessary to improvise.
I don’t think innovation is easy and not everyone has the aptitude for it. It’s not specific to any one culture either. Some people have the aptitude to innovate, and some people don’t.
What was your inspiration for your Spellquiz startup?
I have children and wanted to help them with their reading, writing, and spelling. However, because my pronunciation is not always accurate, I found it difficult. I have always liked to innovate and have a passion for education, IT, and language. So, with a team of experts, I founded SpellQuiz.
We have a global presence and are used by individuals and schools. A school in New Jersey was the first to take advantage of our programme.
I have now handed over some of the day to day running to my nineteen-year-old daughter. She has a passion for language too and is studying linguistics, so she was an obvious person to take on the day to day running of SpellQuiz.
Moving to managing in field engineering
Was your career goal to move into an executive role eventually?
That was never my goal, but Schlumberger developed me and gave me more skills. I learnt about sales and marketing for example. To be honest, you need to have experience in field-based roles to then manage people well. That is what I had.
What makes a good manager of field-based staff?
I think a good manager of field-based staff has these three qualities:
The will to succeed,
The will to perform,
Happy to sacrifice personal life initially.
It is also key to understand the sort of life that the field staff are living. I understand that from first-hand experience.
Career as a field engineer and manager
What advice would you give to someone who has just started their first job as a field engineer?
A career in oil and gas has always needed sacrifice. In the past salaries were high, much higher than they are now. So, the sacrifice is no longer balanced as much. So, I would say:
“You have to enjoy what you do to be successful.”
You established Advanced Upstream Ltd. in 2018. What is your company ethos?
FAT is the core value of our company –
Fun, Accountability and Trust.
It is key to our success and an easy thing to remember.
How has the company grown?
When we started Advanced Upstream five years ago, there was just me and a few other cofounders. Two years ago, there were twelve of us and we are now a team of fifty and need more people.
Innovation remains key for me and so because of that we will keep growing.
In what way does the fracking equipment you supply make fracking safer?
Fracking currently relies on a “plug and perf” technology. This is mostly used in the USA (the biggest market in the world for these operations), Canada and some other countries.
While Plug and Perf rely on using explosive perforating charges running with wireline and requiring post job milling operation with the coiled tubing, with our technology, one person replaces fifteen people and tens of trucks and other equipment and so there are significant advantages in terms of safety, water and energy consumption reductions.
Conclusion to managing engineers in the field
I take immense pride in my past experience as a field engineer in the oil and gas industry. My experience as a field engineer allowed me to witness firsthand the innovation, dedication, and teamwork required to overcome complex challenges in this sector. It’s a source of pride to know that my work contributed to the reliable supply of energy that underpins modern life while constantly striving for environmental responsibility and safety.